advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

People donate their garbage to my NFP

I work for a not-for-profit that helps communities and families in times of need. Post-drought, famine, other natural disaster, or war or political conflict. Something I’ve noticed is that when we put the call out for donations in response to these crises, we invariably get a lot of what I can only describe as “junk.” This is clothing, shoes, and household items that are well beyond their use-by date. And I don’t mean just slightly worn; much of it is completely unusable, and we end up having to throw it out. Don’t get me wrong. I and my organization are deeply indebted to, and very, very grateful to all our donors. But is there some way to impress upon people that what is effectively their garbage just isn’t very helpful to us? What we really need is $$$ (which we accept as well of course). – Name withheld

First of all, thank you for all that you do.

If it weren’t for organizations like yours—and individuals such as yourself—there would be far more suffering in this world than there already is. I imagine your work requires no small amount of emotional investment as well, and while ultimately rewarding, likely takes its toll. And if I had to guess, I’d say you’re probably not paid exorbitantly for your efforts either.[1]

So again – thank you. You should be proud of what you do.

A paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2010 may shed light on what you and your organization seem to be experiencing.

In it, researchers examined patterns in charitable giving – and what they found is that, despite their limited resources, the lower classes—or the “poor”—tend to be more charitable than the rich. The reason, they conclude, is:

“[W]hereas upper class individuals can use their material wealth and access to buffer themselves against life’s disruptions, lower class individuals are more reliant on the strength of their social bonds and, as a consequence, are more prosocial.”[2]

In other words, the poor are more generous because they feel economically closer to, and therefore more sympathetic towards the individuals in crisis your organization serves. As a result, they are more willing to give.

It is likely too that this class of donors would be more inclined to contribute actual physical items to your cause, as opposed to opening their pocketbooks. Being short on $ themselves, they may be giving you the only things they can spare. The rich, on the other hand, as happy as they may be to share their wealth, are, unfortunately, just generally less inclined to share.

(I can’t help but wonder too if this doesn’t in part explain recent trends in executive pay.[3] If people are more sympathetic to those of the same socio-economic class, maybe having a CEO’s compensation decided by a board of directors populated by a bunch of other high-paid executives isn’t such a great idea after all? But I digress.)

But why the “garbage,” you might ask?

Well, while it may look like trash to you, for the lower classes these items may still have value. Indeed, for a glimpse of how the working poor are able to wring every last bit of utility from what little they have, I recommend Linda Tirado’s, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (2014). One of the workarounds she describes in her wonderfully insightful book is making diapers for her two children out of old T-shirts.[4]

Given this level of ingenuity, what looks like “junk” to you may be anything but to this class of donors (and possibly its recipients, as well?). So while I understand your frustration, don’t make the mistake of misreading the intent behind the gesture. I doubt these folks are deliberately unloading their crap on your organization simply because it’s easier, or feels better than bagging it up and dragging it to the curb on garbage day.

Finally, the bad news for you and your organization is that in light of real wage stagnation in this country,[5] there is likely no end in sight for the make-up or quality of donations you’re receiving.

Factoring this into your organization’s overall mission and strategy going forward is something you and your colleagues may want to consider.



[1] According to, the average salary for non profit employees in the US is $51,566, annually. Pay ranges from $29,500 to $112,000, with approximately 50% of all NFP workers making less than $44,500 per year. (

[2] Piff, Paul K., Michael Kraus, Bonnie H. Cheng, and Dacher Keltner. “Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2010 (Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0020092), p. 3.

[3] In 2018, the median CEO Pay Ratio was 178:1; by 2022, it had increased to just over 250:1. FROM: Batish, Amit. “Early CEO Compensation and PvP Disclosure Trend From the 2023 Proxy Season.” Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance. Posted April 20, 2023.,Equilar%20500%20companies%20in%202021. Retrieved 5/10/2023.

[4] Tirado, Linda. Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. 2014 (Berkley), p. 121.

[5] Desilver, Drew. “For most U.S. workers, real wages have barely budged in decades.” PEW Research Center. August 2018. Retrieved 5/10/2023.

[ 1 Comment ]

  1. Tim Eiler

    One man’s trash is often another’s treasure.

    As a donor to organizations like the OP’s, I have often been frustrated to find that things I’ve donated don’t meet the organization’s high standards. Clothes I myself would still wear get a disdainful look and a comment from the collectors to let me know that they won’t be able to take certain things I’ve donated. (And these clothes aren’t filthy, moth-eaten rags, I assure you!)

    The problem isn’t that NFPs have become hourly-toity. Nor is it that those among us who give of our possessions give only the trash we own. Finally, it’s not that the homeless or people suffering after a disaster are only going to accept things that have enough cache to keep them in elevated status.

    It’s the assumptions everyone makes that are the problem.

    One way the OP’s organization might alleviate this is by doing an ongoing communication that explains more explicitly what kinds of articles they will take and the minimum quality expected of those things – and why those are the minimum. Many fewer assumptions would be the result, and those wrong assumptions wouldn’t get the OP into a twisted-knickers emotional state so often.


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